What happens when you ask “who made my clothes?”

When this pink polkadot dress made its way into my wardrobe, via a friend at a clothes swap, I have to admit that I didn’t really think much about where it came from before that. Not which branch of H&M it was purchased in, but who actually made it. Contrary to what many people seem to think, clothes are not made entirely by machine. There were many hands involved in making this simple summer frock that I only keep to wear around the house when it’s too hot to wear anything else.

The label says the fabric is 100% cotton and proclaims it to be ‘made in India’, but that’s most likely to be where the dress was stitched together rather than where the cotton was grown, spun, woven and printed. (If you don’t have much of an idea about the process, this series of videos from NPR’s Planet Money will give you a decent amount of background knowledge.) So, I did a little bit of online research to see if I could find out any more about where my dress came from and who made it.

H&M lists suppliers on their website and has a page devoted to its use of cotton, but what does this actually tell me about who made my dress? Very little indeed. It’s not like you can track a garment like you can track a parcel delivery online. The dress isn’t labelled as being made from organic or Fairtrade cotton, and so probably isn’t. Thankfully, H&M doesn’t buy cotton from Uzbekistan (a country which uses forced child labour to harvest cotton), so I decided that it’s perhaps likely that the fibre and fabric does actually come from the country where the dress was stitched together.

Infographic from Fashion RevolutionIndian cotton farmers have not been making as much money out of their crops in recent years, partly because of the high costs of genetically modified seeds and partly because they’re competing with the highly subsidised US cotton industry. Many news outlets have been reporting on the high suicide rates amongst Indian cotton farmers, usually blaming the cost of using pest-resistant Bt cotton seeds (a GM variety which has a high resistance to bollworm attacks) and the additional water and fertilisers required to grow it. Cotton farmer Rajeshbhai told The Hindu earlier this year: “We thought the Bt technology would save our crop from worm attack. It did for a few years, but the problem continues to persist and the yield is falling with every passing year”.

The lives of Indian garment workers are often even worse than those of the farmers, which you may already know due to disasters hitting the headlines. In addition to extremely low wages and poor working conditions, many migrant workers can’t find anywhere to live and the accommodation offered by garment factories’ is a long way from ideal living conditions:

The report found that the hostels generally provide the bare minimum. At a hostel run by Arvind, which supplies H&M, men slept on three-tier bunk beds in large, divided halls. There are no kitchens, the water supply is irregular, and one bathroom serves 12 to 14 people. “Nothing is good,” one Arvind worker said. “But we are staying here because we have to live and there is no other way.” Workers also had to pay to stay there.

My no-doubt cheap dress looks to have had a pretty shady past! In the FashRev 2017 Transparency Index, H&M was one of the highest rated, scoring 48% overall (91% on Policy & Commitments; 67% on Governance; 29% on Traceability; 37% on Know, Show & Fix; and 46% on Spotlight Issues), so I initially thought that my dress was from one of the better companies. However, 48% might have been better than the vast majority of companies this research looked at but, remember, that’s still under 50% and leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Infographic from Fashion RevolutionAn article published on Broadly last year quoted an activist who claims that H&M are only “superficially responsive–they’ll answer phone calls and emails. But they’re actually very non-transparent”. However, the Economic Times reported in February that H&M has said it plans to have elected committees and proper pay structures for workers in its main supply factories across the world by 2018, so perhaps there is hope?

Of course, unless you make every last bit of it yourself, no clothing is produced in a completely sustainable way but we have to start asking these questions of big clothing companies so they know they need to be accountable. A garment may be a transient object in the lives of twenty-first century Westerners, but it deserves much more respect than that. So, next time you pick something out of your wardrobe to put on in the morning, spare a thought for the people who made it.

This post forms part of my coursework on the free Who Made My Clothes? online course over at FutureLearn. If you’re interested in finding out who made your clothes, or in learning more about sustainability (or lack thereof!) in the fashion industry, I recommend signing up.

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